PhotoWhen governments hike taxes on cigarettes they usually have two goals: they want to raise some revenue but they also want to discourage smoking by making it more expensive. A new study suggests that strategy is working -- at least partially.

More expensive cigarettes may not affect how much light smokers light up but researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say heavy smokers cut back. And that's something of a surprise.

“Most clinicians and researchers thought these very heavy smokers would be the most resistant to price increases,” says first author Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD. “Many believed this group was destined to continue smoking heavily forever, but our study points out that, in fact, change can occur. And that’s very good news.”

Major study

The research team analyzed a subset of data from a large study documenting the prevalence of alcohol and drug use and associated psychiatric and medical conditions. The study identified 7,068 smokers and asked them how much they smoked. Three years later, researchers went back and asked the smokers the same question.

“On average, everyone was smoking a little less,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “But when we factored in price changes from tax increases, we found that the heaviest smokers responded to price increases by cutting back the most.”

At first, the average smoker in the study was smoking 16 cigarettes per day. Three years later the number of daily smokes had dropped to 14.

What's behind the decline? During the three years between the surveys, the price for a pack of cigarettes increased from an average of $3.96 in 2001 to $4.41 in 2004. Most of the increase was due to hikes in state taxes.

Where price didn't matter so much

Among those who smoked less, rising prices had less of an impact. Individuals smoking 20 cigarettes, or about one pack per day, would have been expected to cut back by two cigarettes without a price increase, but in response to a 35 percent increase in price, they only reduced their smoking by three cigarettes a day.

In response to the higher taxes, heavy smokers cut back by an average of 35 percent. Lighter smokers smoked about 15 percent fewer cigarettes.

Other possible factors?

Could other factors be responsible for the decline? The researchers said they look for them but didn't find any.

“Other research has shown, for example, that smoke-free indoor air policies can reduce the number of cigarettes that people smoke,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “But our study didn’t find that. There weren’t a lot of changes in indoor smoking policies during the time period in which these surveys were conducted. So we can’t say those policies don’t help reduce smoking. It’s just that we didn’t find they had a big impact in our results.”

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